500 years after the arrival of the Portuguese, a group of Sri Lankans has come together to make right what went wrong during those years of colonial occupation.
Chandani Kirinde reports
It is the high point in more than two and half years of tedious and painstaking work for a group of local historians, archaeologists and intellectuals, the end result of which is an international conference on the Portuguese Encounter in Sri Lanka. The conference, to be held on December 10 and 11 will seek to create awareness on this much neglected period of history and make a case for an apology and compensation from the Portuguese for atrocities committed during their nearly 160-year stay in the island.
The 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka fell on November 15, but the day went by almost unnoticed with people too wrapped up in the political changes taking place in the country with a presidential election just two days away. Thus the historical significance of the week was swamped by the present-day political turmoil.
But for a small group of people who have made it their mission to make this particular time in Sri Lanka’s history not become a forgotten cause, the conference, to be held in Colombo next weekend will be only the beginning of a continuous process, which they hope will become an eye-opener to the relevant authorities both in Sri Lanka and Portugal for the need for an admission of, and an apology for the atrocities committed during the period of Portuguese rule in Ceylon.
The idea to put together the Portuguese Encounter Group was the brainchild of Dr. Susantha Goonatilake, who was spurred into initiating such a group after the former United National Front (UNF) government announced in 2002 that it hoped to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese.
“I have been studying colonial history for over 30 years but it was this announcement that made me take a special interest in the subject. How can we celebrate our own destruction? This is the slavish mentality of some of our leaders going on bended knees to the occupiers,” Dr. Goonatillake said.
And it is this same “slavish mentality” that he hopes the conference will help to banish as almost all other countries that were under foreign occupation have managed to do. “India, Malaysia and even the Philippines have moved ahead of us in this aspect. The fault (in Sri Lanka) lies with the supine products of this period. That is why we have never had a real ruling class in this country unlike in India,” he explained.
The Group has, over the past two years, been conducting extensive research and study into the Portuguese period in Ceylon. They have visited and documented over 50 sites destroyed by the Portuguese from Jaffna to Devundara, from Kotte to Kelaniya and Batticaloa.
“We have studied the historical documentation of these religious places of worship – Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim – that existed in the maritime provinces before the arrival of the Portuguese and compared them during and after the Portuguese left the country by gathering information from all available sources,” Dr. Goonatilake said. The unfortunate truth is that in their overzealous eagerness to convert people to Catholicism, these sites were razed to the ground and churches put up in place of many of them, he says.
Around 50 presentations will be made during the technical sessions of the conference covering various aspects of life in Ceylon before the Portuguese arrived and how things changed during their occupation. ”We want to try and answer several questions like what kind of society existed in Ceylon before 1505, how advanced they were in various fields such as warfare, how people interacted, their marriage customs and how these were influence by the arrival of the Portuguese,” Dr. Goonatilake said.
Another interesting presentation of the conference will be on the “Portuguese jewellery”, much of which now adorns museums across Europe in cities ranging from Lisbon to Vienna to Munich and London. Some of these items were gifted to the Portuguese by the Ceylonese Royalty of that time and others sold to them. It was a time when Ceylon jewellery became a fashion in Europe.
Writings by Portuguese authors clearly illustrate large amounts of valuable gems and jewellery that were taken to Portugal for the pleasure of Queen Catherine of Portugal. In 1551, in a letter to the Queen of Portugal, the Viceroy of Goa- who represented the King of Portugal – wrote, “The Viceroy sends to Your Highness ninety one points of gold and gems, which Doigo Vaz brought from Ceylon and likewise thousand more small rubies and five hundred emeralds and a piece of not having more of those, which your Highness ordered him to send for, and nine marked three ounces of amber and a collar and a bracelet of gold and stones, which the King of Ceylon has sent as a present.”
These were in turn gifted by the Portuguese royalty to other royal families in Europe and now occupy pride of place in museums across these European capitals. Given the controversial as well as sensitive nature of this subject, there are various opinions on how Sri Lanka can find “resolution” for the colonial hangover.
Senaka Weeraratna, another member of the Encounter Group will be presenting three papers at the conference including one on the Portuguese reign of terror against Buddhism, Don Juan Dharmapala – the donation of a kingdom and its legal validity and a claim for compensation from Portugal.
One of Mr. Weeraratna’s papers will examine the precedents set by Dharmapala in transferring his kingdom to a foreign sovereign and its implications in influencing the conduct of the ruling polity of post-independence Sri Lanka.
He will also discuss if Sri Lanka has a tenable claim for compensation based on the principle of international law and contemporary precedence such as the judgments of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal.
“The compensation does not have to be in terms of money but by way of scholarships or assistance to rebuild what has been destroyed by them and other similar ways,” said Mr.Weeraratna, a lawyer by profession. He also proposes sending a Theravada Buddhist delegation to open a Buddhist Centre in Lisbon.
Courtesy: Sunday Times